Social cohesion and the role of philanthropy

September 2019, Wasan Island, Muskoka Lake, Canada

Whether it’s political polarisation or widening inequality globally; society can feel more divided than ever. So, what is the role of philanthropy in helping bridge some of these divisions?


Whether it is the black liberation organising taking place in the US, Indigenous rights in Canada, or the current discussions around immigration in the UK, calls for radical renewal of social cohesion are prevalent — as are calls for increased segmentation and exclusion. Other threats include the climate crisis; the legacy of colonisation; and a rise in populist and nationalist rhetoric. Having a sense of belonging and feeling part of an open society might feel different for individuals in different societies, yet cohesive societies should enable a sense of belonging no matter your context.  

About the retreat

This This retreat convened 18 philanthropic leaders from four continents to discuss the roles for philanthropy in creating and protecting cohesive societies, in which individuals have a sense of belonging no matter their context. It explored what is meant by ‘social cohesion’ and what threatens it, what needs to change, and which methods could help the sector to shift? This must be thought of as an iterative approach, rather than an out-of-the-box method. This retreat was also a space for funders to consider potential unintended consequences, such as increased competition between organisations or replicating the marginalisation of minorities.

We explored:

  • Should philanthropy be more political? If so, where does their legitimacy to act come from?
  • How do we avoid situations when the role of philanthropy backfires and causes deeper divisions? What threatens social cohesion? 
  • What are practical methods to promote social cohesion? How is this reflected in grant making practices and portfolio? What’s the soft power of foundations and how is this being exercised?
  • How do philanthropic foundations need to fundamentally change – for example, by radically decentralising power and decolonising philanthropy?
  • Which methods might help the sector shift – for example, engaging with new ways of giving and repurposing endowments?
Insights and learning

We produced a report highlighting the learning from the practical and global conversations which took place during the retreat. The report is intended to dive deeper into the different roles philanthropy can or should play in promoting social cohesion. 

While many philanthropic organisations aim to identify and solve structural inequalities in society, there is less readiness to recognise their own organisations as part of the problem. Philanthropy is both part of the system perpetuating inequality and a system in itself. A first step for philanthropy to help create more socially cohesive societies is for funders to resist the narrative that they speak and act from a position of neutrality. Other things that must change include: radically decentralising power; reconceptualising philanthropy to include gift giving and mutual aid; and decolonising philanthropy.